The real value was in the comment thread. Original post here.
That caused Joseph Fouche to post Overgrown Comment, Short Post from which I will excerpt relevant comments from JF, Dave Schuler and Seydlitz89:
Dave Schuler comments:
I think that the Obama Administration’s actions are less an instance of only an indirect relationship between means and ends than a disagreement with you on ends, Mark. Just as one example, the primary objective of the Obama Administration (as in all administrations) is a second term. Consider the actions through that lens.
Also, isn’t it possible that the Administration is really sincere about the “international support” trope that marked the Libyan intervention? International support will never be forthcoming for intervention against the Syrian regime. I don’t think that either the Russians or Chinese would stand for it. The Russian relationship with Syria at least is much cozier than that between Russia and Libya.
Good thought-provoking post, you actually got me out of my hiatus from blogs/blogging, just don’t tell anyone over at milpub ;-)>
While I agree with Joseph’s comment, I would add a few other points to consider:
First, “strategy”, is a specific concept in terms of strategic theory which can be linked to “strategic effect”, but not necessarily so. Force and personality alone (which are not “strategy” the way I define it -see http://milpubblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/when-strategy-is-not-strategy.html) can achieve strategic effect. So we need to be clear how we are using this particular adjective, which need not be linked to a specific strategy at all. Also the strategy in question might be bad, even self-defeating, as Joseph points out and still be a strategy.
Second, when has our Middle Eastern policy ever been consistent, in terms of treating all countries the same? Perhaps under Bush I during 1990-91, but we have always treated the different Arab countries differently in line with our different interests involved. Bahrain gets a pass, whereas Libya gets NATO intervention, and Syria gets referred to the ICC . . . In each case the US interest is seen as different so the response is different.
Third, the real root cause of the problem is imo our dysfunctional political system which is unable to implement policies which are in the best interests of the country as a political community. The Iraq war was essentially a collapse of US strategic thought and rather was based on narrow and corrupt interests, deceptive politics and notions of unlimited US power (force) and exceptionalism (personality) which triggered a still ongoing strategic disaster for US interests in the region, but not limited to it.
We have a long way to go and I don’t see us getting there any time soon, unfortunately.
Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, just before transmogrifying into Scottish celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, proposed an approach that serious credentialed historians could use if venturing to write the generally silly and uncredentialed genre of counter-factual history:
To produce serious counter-factual history that is not utter bollocks, your point of departure from our factual timeline has to be a documented and real credible alternative raised by a documented and real credible person at a documented and real point in time prior to the moment when factual and the proposed counterfactual timelines diverge.
As Dave Schuler alludes, how Zen, I, or seydlitz interpret what is strategic, what is astrategic, and what is antistrategic is often determined by what we individually interpret as political, apolitical, or antipolitical. We put events in boxes and eventually there is a box beyond which we do not stray because we don’t know this outer box is there. We can perhaps use Ferguson’s approach to separate which of the Administration’s factual alignment of ends to means are impossible and which are merely improbable and which of our various counterfactual alternative alignments of ends to means are impossible or merely improbable.
….I’ll close my observations on this post and its comment thread with two points:
- Whatever framework you use to analyze human actions, especially those actions your framework categorizes as war or conflict, it should be equally capable of shedding light (and defining) “good” or “successful” actions and “bad” or “failed” actions. Categorizing one lump of actions as Actions while excluding another lump of actions as less than actions does not a good framework make. For those frameworks that aspire to pass as “strategic theory”, this means that they should be just as capable of analyzing Hitler’s strategy of dividing Germany into bloodied, burned out, and thoroughly wrecked fragments occupied by foreigners as they are of analyzing Bismarck’s strategy of creating a unified and independent Germany. A proposed strategic analytic framework that accepts some strategic phenomena into the garden of strategy while consigning others to the outer darkness of non-strategy does serve a useful purpose. Strategic effect rains on both righteous and wicked alike. Neither can be barred from opening an umbrella to shield themselves from strategic fallout because an observer runs up and commands them to stop because theory forbids it. One of the fundamental principles of strategic theory is that theory cannot absolutely forbid umbrella opening: the umbrella opener will inevitably seek to subvert any theory that seeks to unnaturally restrict their freedom to open umbrellas.
That was very interesting and thought provoking. I have, in fact, thought about these comments for several days and I do not have a neat, plausible rejoinder so much as some thoughts in regard to epistemology, which is the level where this discussion really is taking place.
Dave, I think, is correct that are a jumble of motivations in play within the Obama administration, not least of which is the overriding focus of domestic politics in an administration where the national security and foreign policy apparat is heavy with politicos. There is an internationalist faction in the administration too, though they are hardly dominant. They win some and lose some. Incidentally, most administrations, from transcripts and memoirs I have read operate in a state of crisis management much of the time – tightly focused sessions like ExComm during the Cuban Missile Crisis are exceptions. Oval Office convos and meetings as a rule, ramble like meetings do everywhere except when the POTUS (like Eisenhower) demands otherwise.
So, is it proper to categorize this behavior as something other than strategy? Yes – at least when you want to discern conscious strategic thinking about geopolitics and military operations, or absence thereof, you’d refer to what the administration is doing currently as “politics” insofar as their eye seemed to be primarily concerned with domestic political effects rather than strategic effects in the international arena. Strategy requires conscious effort because it is pro-active and often, what passes for strategy is brilliantly intuitive tactical reactions coupled with a fair piece of luck that generated fortunate outcomes that were strategic in their effect, if not intent.
I am pretty much in agreement with Seydlitz89 that the root of our inability to think and act in a strategic fashion is our dysfunction as a political community and his caution regarding strategic effects. There’s a number of reasons for this dysfunction but even if that was instantly remedied by the Good Civics Fairy, we would have to make a conscious effort to build a rational strategic culture.
Regarding Joseph Fouche’s comment on frameworks, he has a logical point regarding strategic theory that works….in theory. By that I mean that I don’t disagree, he’s right in the abstract sense that such a comprehensive and consistent structure would be preferable. My impression though – and I think this is in line with what he is arguing above – is that strategic theory as a field itself may not be quite up to the high standard to which Fouche aspires. Strategic theory in practice, rarely demonstrates the concise elegance of Newtonian physics. In terms of explanatory power, strategic theory used by practitioners or created by modern day theorists rarely rises beyond being situationally “good enough” for the problem at hand. An intellectual tool, like a sharp rock or a pointy stick in the fist of a paleolithic hunter-gatherer. For that matter, if strategic theory proves to be situationally accurate and useful, that is often a cause for celebration!
Going beyond “good enough” to “universally” or “generally” applicable strategic theory is an intellectual feat of the first order. That kind of system -building is usually the result of a life’s work and cannot be called into being on a moment’s notice. Aside from the fact that most people are not capable of rising to becoming a Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, the time constraints make it impossible for state decision makers to think and act within such a framework unless they have arrived into office with one already inculcated as part of their worldview (and even then, it is of great help if they spent years out of office thinking through real and hypothetical problems using that framework, internalizing the principles without losing the ability to observe and think critically). This is why in matters of strategy, our decision makers are usually wielding the intellectual equivalent of stone tools – the statesman with the cognitive flintlock musket or strategic steam engine is few and far between.
So, we are often left with a fractured mess, analytically speaking. Entrails to root through, looking for signs from the gods.